Ten weeks ago I walked into a classroom of 180 non-science majors to teach a course in Organic Chemistry. Many of these non-science majors were anxious about the experience to come, knowing only that people taking such a class often fell to repeat it once or twice to obtain a passing grade. Most of them had just completed one quarter of introductory general chemistry, and had no idea exactly how much they were about to learn.
Week one was spent covering the topic of acids and bases, the very foundation of 95% of all reactions in Organic Chemistry. Calculators were overheating with number crunching of hydronium ion concentrations, pH, pKa, and buffer problems. The same calculators were soon laid to rest with the debut of Lewis acids and bases.
Introduction of alkanes and basic nomenclature was followed by alkenes, alkynes and aromatic compounds. Soon the non-science majors were learning more chemistry than they ever bargained for. Carbonyl chemistry followed, and suddenly there were oxygen atoms everywhere, with protons flying around like mosquitos at a sunset lakeside picnic. The payoff for the hard work of each and every student was right around the corner.
The topic of biochemistry was introduced in week nine when students were familiarized with amino acids, primary, secondary, tertiary and quaternary structure of proteins, enzymes and lipids. Soon they realized the significance of the hydrogen bonding they had been tested for over and again.
The “reward” was given in week ten via unveiling of the special topic of medicinal chemistry. We briefly touched upon computational chemistry, molecular biology, pharmacology, enzymology and structural biology. Students were introduced to ligand receptor binding in terms of how a drug might bind to the active site of a target protein.
Protein-protein interactions were discussed in terms of how they might be disrupted to prevent HIV virion fusion at the sites of GP41 and GP120. Pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics were also discussed, along with the significance of ADME in the drug discovery process.
Students were taught the significance of oral bioavailability in the drug design process. This was followed by a discussion of pharmaceutical ethics in terms of who is served when companies copy, slightly modify and sell the intellectual property of other companies, only to place cloned products onto the market with comparable clinical pharmacology.
A 20-step convergent total synthesis of a drug scaffold with three points of differentiation was touched upon, and in the final class non-science majors where asked to utilize single point mutations to take a biological hit of 50 uM to an IND track candidate of 0.1 nM with a selectivity of 100:1 over other proteins. The non-science majors optimized the activity and selectivity of the putative drug in less than 30 minutes.
I seized the opportunity to remind them of the anxiety brought with them into class only ten weeks prior, empowering them with the fact they now know more about the pharmaceutical process than 95% of all Americans. When they realized, with my guidance, they had accomplished in theory what takes synthetic organic chemistry students many, many years to accomplish in fact, there were only open mouths in the room. None of them could have imagined they would come so far in ten weeks.
Admittedly, these non-science majors were pushed harder in ten weeks than they had ever been pushed in any class in their undergraduate career. Many were graduating seniors. During the course conclusion, students were reminded they were empowered as individuals to vote their conscience when it comes to pharmaceutical reform. It was the first time I had ever received a standing ovation, and holding back the emotions was challenging.
One student is now interested in chemistry. Another wishes to pursue studies in chemical patent law as related to neuroscience. Yet another is now able to have meaningful conversations about drug discovery with her molecular biologist mother. Even more, one student who feared she might not even pass the course, electing to take it pass/fail, received an A- grade, now regretting the pass/fail election.
In another week I start teaching a group of 180 non-science majors concepts of introductory general chemistry, knowing I’ll be seeding their minds with principles to make Organic Chemistry much easier for them. As of this moment, I’m unable to think of anything else I’d rather do.
This article is dedicated to the group of young Organic Chemistry minds I’ve touched, and who in turn have touched me.
© 2013 Joseph Lennox, Ph.D.
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